A bard is a storyteller, poet, and usually musician, specifically from the Gaelic traditions of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The role is present in many cultures, however, from the dalang in Indonesia to the griots of Western Africa. Throughout history, the bard has been associated with spiritual power and even magic, as well as with preserving the history of a culture and explaining the origins of the natural world.
The term "bard" comes from an early Gaelic word that roughly translates as "to sing praise." Originally, the term had a derogatory meaning, depicting a wastrel or transient singer. As bardic tradition in the Celtic world progressed, this person became a source of oral history as well as music and comedy. Some could also perform sleight of hand, and worked as all-around entertainers to nobility. Many of the Celtic bards were also the first writers; their few written compositions are most of what we authentically have from the ancient traditions that have not been altered over time.
In West Africa, the griots held a quite similar role. They served as historians and storytellers, frequently found in company with royal or noble families of Africa. In some African cultures, speech is considered to have tremendous and mysterious powers, so often griots were believed to possess unusual spiritual capabilities. Many traditional African nature legends have been passed down through this tradition, which still thrives in some places today.
The bard plays an enormous part in understanding the ancient world. After the fall of the Roman Empire, much of the world entered a long, slow period of gradual decline in education, writing, and cultural pursuits. People stopped learning how to read and write, and the scholarly work of great thinkers waned. History became an oral tradition throughout Europe, and it was the bards who kept it alive. Passing down the stories of their ancestors as they wandered from town to town, they managed to keep alive the old stories and invent the new.
Bards put on the first one-man theater performances, in many respects. Unlike the Greek and Roman theater, which though highly evolved, needed a chorus and a great many characters and ceremonies, these individuals could captivate an audience with their voice, their story, and their music. In the tradition of all great storytellers, they could play their audience like a lute. Their capabilities as artists are probably what promoted the suggestions that they had supernatural ability; they were able to transport their audience within the story, something akin to magic in the thinking of that time.
There are still bards performing today, in many places and forms. In Indonesia, the great puppet-masters provide history, social commentary, spiritual services, and comedy through their solo performances of shadow puppet theater. Throughout Europe and America, others have become writers and filmmakers, using a broad and more sustainable canvas on which to pain their tales. As for the importance of bardic tradition in modern culture, it is no wonder that Shakespeare, who most experts consider to be the greatest playwright in history, is often referred to as The Bard.